US -India defense cooperation over the past 20 years, has rapidly increased. A historic deal on the transfer of technology (ToT) of General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engines to India would likely be signed on upcoming Indian PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the US later this month. The deal is meant for arming India’s home-grown fighter jet; the Tejas MK2.
US defense secretary Lloyd J Austin’s recent visit to India which lasted two days from 4-5th June, staged and finalized the deal framework with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh. This development was signaled earlier by Youngje Kim, Vice President of the Indo-Pacific Region of General Electric Aviation, during an interview with India Daily, Financial Express.
The deadlock on the long-awaited deal got a key breakthrough, following the meeting of Indian and USA National Security Advisors (NSA’s), who met in Washington, earlier this year. The agreement is an offshoot of the larger strategic US–India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET), a small portion of the larger Indo-US strategic partnership. The Indo-US engine deal will serve two key objectives; aptly enhancing India’s aircraft manufacturing capability, along with providing enhanced qualitative, and quantitative edge to IAF over PAF in the upcoming decade.
ToT Deal: Game Changer for IAF
India will have a hundred percent ToT for the GE-F414 engines. It will be a huge upgrade because the current operational Tejas Mark-1 fighter jets have a less powerful GE-F404 engine. GE F404 can produce a dry thrust of 53.9 kilonewtons (kN) and 82 kN with an afterburner. However, in contrast, GE-F414 can attain 98 kN with an afterburner, a significant amount higher than what GE-F404 can generate along with improved specific fuel consumption.
The novel agreement will be a sign of relief for the Indian Air Force as it will now get access to funds for the manufacturing of Tejas Mk 2. Earlier, accessing funds was not possible because the Indian government argued that the funding would be available only if the US government approved a hundred percent transfer of engine technology. Now, after the signing of the deal, Tejas Mk 2 project got the go-ahead for production. It will permit the Tejas Mk 2 to meet its induction deadline of 2028, set by the Indian government.
Moreover, it is not exclusively limited to aircraft manufacturing, and fulfilling the IAF requirements but it would complement India’s “Make in India” slogan, vigorously propagated by the ruling party of India since 2014. It will open new avenues for India’s indigenous 5th-generation program. The deal will empower the IAF to build its indigenous fighters under the “Make in India” initiative, thus reducing capital costs associated with buying, maintaining, and overhauling jets. It will eventually strengthen the self-reliance of India’s aerospace industry.
Besides, the ToT deal will remove the critical hindrance faced by India for four decades in building its own indigenous engine, Kaveri, because it failed to achieve the performance standards set by the Indian air force. This will allow India to rapidly build a modern 4.5th generation fighter force of Tejas Mk 2 that will replace the aging fleet consisting of Mig-29, Sepecat Jaguar, and Mirage-2000. Tejas Mk 2 main technical features includes eleven hard points, a useful load of 6500 kg, a maximum speed of 1.8 Mach, and a combat range of approximately 650 miles without refueling. This combo demonstrates the Tejas MK 2, in par with modern 4.5th generation fighters operational across the globe.
Moreover, the deal will be a game changer for the Indian domestic aircraft manufacturing industry because, before the signing of the deal, the Indian aerospace industry was unable to manufacture a single jet engine fulfilling the requirement, set by the Indian air force (IAF). Moreover, the deal is a continuation of one already signed by two parties in 2021 worth $716 million, for the supply of 99 engines for Tejas Mk-1, fulfilling the vacuum left by phasing out Mig-21 fighters. All the engines will be transferred by 2029 and India will build 83 LCA MK1A Tejas fighters, sanctioned by Indian Cabinet Committee on Security in 2021 costing around $6.5 billion.
Additionally, India considers it the best bet to fulfill the IAF’s long-standing quest of retaining 42 fighter squadrons, a mandatory requirement advocated by the IAF, over the years, for a two-front war scenario. The deal would be a blessing for India because, in the next two years, IAF would be short of three more squadrons (60 air crafts), because of the phase-wise withdrawal of Mi-21 from IAF service. This would be IAF’s only chance to maintain its operational requirement of 42 squadrons strength, and it will go for it without any hesitance.
Concerns for the Pakistan Air Force: Challenges and Vacuum
On the other hand, this ongoing development will be of paramount concern for PAF because it presently operates with only 431 combat-capable fighters, interceptors, and ground attack aircraft according to the prestigious Military Balance 2023. These include 46 F-7PG Airguard, 20 F-7P Skybolt, 47 Mirage-III, and 37 Mirage-V, thus totaling 150 fighters or approximately 9.5 squadrons likely to retire in the next ten years. This will leave a massive vacuum within PAF ranks.
To fulfill the void would be a challenging task for PAF to complete, considering the existing economic situation of Pakistan. Pakistan is developing and manufacturing its own JF-17 advanced models but to cope with the rising challenge would require additional funding and resources for the JF-17 project, along with a greater chunk of military budget allocation for acquisitions of other modern 4.5th and 5th generation fighter jets. This is easier said than done and will need constant commitment for accomplishing such a demanding task and requires the urgent attention of Pakistan’s political leadership. Political leadership should come forward and lead from the front, just like the Indian PM Narendra Modi took personal interests in the defense requirements of Indian military and found novel ways of fulfilling them.
The GE-F414 engine deal will serve as a catalyst and further increase the asymmetry in the air domain between Pakistan and India, which is already 1:2 respectively. Given India’s past belligerent behavior, especially if one looks at the Balakot misadventure, it is a fair possibility that India would be tempted for setting the score with Pakistan in the future, given the rising asymmetry between both countries in the upcoming decade.
The increasing imbalance would also affect the stability in the region in the near future as a result of unbalanced military capability, especially with reference to air assets because modern wars are dictated by the air force. Finally, the deal is a win for India but an overall loss for the region because it will erode the deterrence that existed presently between the two parties, thus increasing the probability of war and conflicts in the region.
Research Assistant, SVI